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Proposed Rule Would Require Lead Testing In All Montana Schools

Drinking fountain.
Joseph Thomas Photography
Drinking fountain, file photo.

State agencies are working on a proposed rule change that early next year would require every public school in the state to test drinking water for lead. One of them, Department of Environmental Quality, also proposes funnelling some of its funding into new grants to help schools pay for testing and remediation.

Tim Davis is DEQ’s water quality division administrator.

"So it'd be a significant change from where we're at today," Davis says, "with the goal of removing, effectively, the source of lead in school drinking water across the state."

Currently, only schools that draw water from their own wells are required to test for lead. Most schools in Montana have no lead testing requirement because they pull from city water systems, which are tested annually.

But some parents at urban schools worry that lead could be leaching into students’ drinking water after it leaves the city source from corroded older pipes, plumbing fixtures and even solder that contains lead inside school buildings.

Ryan Hunter is one of those worried parents.

"I think it makes sense to test all the fountains where the kids are getting drinking water from to see what the status is there," Hunter says.

Hunter’s daughter started school this year at Hedges Elementary in Kalispell, where public schools are not required to test for lead. After reading about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and finding trace lead levels at his home faucets, he bought a filter and started slipping a water bottle in his daughter’s backpack.

"It's pink with rainbows and unicorns and happy clouds."

Hunter takes the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s warning that no lead level is safe to heart, even when the agency only requires corrective action for detections above 15 parts per billion.

In September, Hunter asked the Kalispell School Board to voluntarily test drinking fountains at his daughter’s school.

Kalispell schools superintendent Mark Flatau says following Hunter’s request, the district started drafting a lead testing schedule around planned construction.

"We really feel that setting up a schedule for testing in our schools, especially right now in the midst of construction and moving forward on that, is the most appropriate way and just makes the most sense. And we will ensure that every school’s water, without a doubt, is healthy," Flatau says.

Skye Borden, state director of the non-profit Environment Montana, says parents statewide have good reason to ask about lead in schools’ drinking water.

"In Montana, as in pretty much every other state in the country, if you look for lead, you find it. And we certainly did," Borden says.

Environment Montana issued a report this April that found that more than 75 percent of voluntary and mandatory lead tests at Montana’s public schools detected lead. Seeley Swan High School found lead levels at 28 parts per billion, nearly twice the EPA’s action level.

"As a result of the high tests they got there, they replaced four water fixtures, they installed a filter, and they also hired an environmental consultant to track the source of their lead. And they tracked it back, actually, to a backed-up pipe in the neighborhood outside of the school boundaries."

Borden says if this school hadn’t voluntarily tested its water, it never would have known about its high lead levels. She’d like to see statutory requirements for all schools to test, report and address lead levels above one part per billion.

"The vast majority of schools in smaller communities across Montana fall into this 'Goldilocks zone,' where they are just the right size to fall through the regulatory holes that we have in the system right now."

Borden says large school districts can often afford voluntary tests but don’t always test every drinking source.

At $15 per sample, following EPA guidelines, Flathead Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau says testing every faucet in Kalispell’s 11 schools could cost upwards of $9,000. He says the district voluntarily tested its schools’ water about a dozen years ago, and that problem faucets were fixed at that time. Those test results and remedies were not available by the time of this story’s publication. Flatau says he has no reason to believe tests from any of the schools in his district would come back above the EPA’s 15 parts per billion threshold.

The state Department of Environmental Quality and state health department’s forthcoming proposal would make it mandatory for all public schools and daycares to test all sources of drinking water and require schools to remediate any fixture testing at greater than 5 parts per billion. Tim Davis with the DEQ says that proposal is still being drafted and will go out for public comment later this year.

"It's especially important that we are looking at lowering sources of lead where children are located, schools and daycares, so that's primarily what we're focusing on," Davis says."

DEQ is also proposing legislation to create a grant program to help schools pay for testing. The legislation would increase an existing fee on public water supply collection to free up general fund money that would be used for the new grant program. That proposed bill is currently being drafted for the 2019 legislative session.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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